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Friday, February 19, 2010

A Tale of Two Cousins: on the role of chance and the privilege of migration

Of all the cousins I hung out with on this trip back to my father’s homeland of Borneo, BJ was by far the most affable. Timidity, according to my father, runs in the Hiew bloodline, but both BJ and I are genealogical aberrations in this regard. Before this trip, I have little recollection of our earlier relationship, but for a single task that I performed for him six years ago, while we were both living in England. While I was off attending plays and debating Marxist theory on a semester abroad in London, BJ was hiding from the immigration police in Birmingham, slaving away in torrid conditions in one of those shady Chinatown restaurants. He needed a bank account in which to deposit his savings, so he could send them back home, and I, being the one legally resident in the UK, duly set one up for him to use. Over the holiday, while reading Jared Diamond’s “Guns Germs and Steel”, I began to consider: What sort of factors led to BJ and I, born of the same grandfather, living in such perversely different situations? Why did I get the lucky end of the global opportunity fortune cookie?

BJ is a large man by any standards. Built like a Samoan rugby player, his tanned, square face carries an omnipresent grin, intimating his laid-back, gentle nature. If he were an animal, he’d be a giant teddy bear, custom-engineered for hugs. We got to know each other over games of Rummy, sitting out on the cool veranda of his stilted wooden home, hand-built by his father and uncles many years ago. We never brought up that time in England—I wasn’t even aware of his being there until my father explained the purpose of the bank account. Besides, we were both back for Chinese New Year, and the holiday climate, coupled with the area’s lethargy-inducing humidity, discouraged soul-searching, economic inequality-questioning dialogues. Instead, we kept to gentle chatter about more recent changes and munched on rose apples, casually tossing the cores over the balcony and shuffling the mahjong piece-like cards between games, our rhythms as relaxed and languid as the jungle that surrounded us.

But having finally gotten around to reading “Guns Germs and Steel”, which argues that natural environment was the chief cause of our European-centric world, I had to wonder about BJ and mine’s disparity. Related to Diamond’s belief, I think that our current social positions have much less to do with any pre-disposed differences so much as the social environment in which we were born into, selected by that most random and unfair of ball-hoppers: birth.

For one, BJ was born to my Uncle Kon Loi, the third child of sixteen. Kon Loi came into the world in 1943, while Borneo was still under Japanese occupation. My grandparents were illiterate, hard-nosed farmers, and of the many sacrifices they had to make in order to survive, Kon Loi’s education was one of them. In fact, of Kon Loi and the seven other siblings who precluded my father’s birth, all left school early. They worked in the fields, tapping rubber trees and tilling crops. Thus, Kon Loi came to be a blue-collar worker in the logging industry and cash crop farmer, and BJ was subsequently born into a family of comparatively limited resources.

On the other hand, my father Michael had the good fortune to be born in 1952, when the political context was by no means easy but relatively better. Most importantly, while his siblings were tilling the fields, he had the option of keeping his nose in textbooks, studying by kerosene lamps and occasionally—when teachers at his lackluster school failed to show up—teaching himself. I don’t doubt that my father’s natural ability had a lot to do with his success—he ended up topping the state of Sabah—but of course, who knows whether Kon Loi, if granted the opportunity, could also have done similarly? Additionally, when my father considered taking a regular-paying job as a cinema manager while waiting to hear back from foreign universities, an elder brother, Choi, urged him to pass on the immediate option and go abroad instead. This brother, whom we stayed with over Chinese New Year (his house is on the same original Hiew clan plot of land as Kon Loi and several other uncles’), later contributed significant savings to support my father’s studies in New Zealand.

My father put things simply: “Your uncle has done more for me than I can ever repay.”

The rest of the story goes smoothly. My father completed a Master’s degree in metallurgy in New Zealand, where he met my mother, and their two children were raised eventually in Australia and the United States.

Another significant advantage I had over BJ is that, being born in Australia as an ethnic Chinese, the government treated me no differently than say, a citizen of British or Italian descent. On the other hand, BJ and my other cousins, just as was the case with our parents, face significant discrimination within their homeland. Malaysia has an ethnic quota system designed ostensibly to “pull up” the ethnic majority Malays, but that in turn results in Chinese and other non-Malay citizens facing enormous competition for the comparatively scarce university slots the state allots for them. While my father’s O levels were among the highest in his state, his matriculation was far from guaranteed. Meanwhile, his Malay peers, whose results paled in comparison, breezed into college and the cushy civil service careers the government provides them.

So in addition to being born to university-educated parents who have successfully made the climb from village peasants to private schools and suburban stability, perhaps my biggest advantage compared to BJ was simply not being burdened by state-policy discrimination. Where my playing field can be considered quite fair, BJ’s has been stacked from the start by local elites, soaked in ethno-religious politics and corruption.

This combination of factors has now manifested itself in our current polarized situations—what one might describe as “inverse immigration.” While BJ was willingly having his labor rights abused in England, in order to send back remittances to his family, I was jaunting around Europe looking at cathedrals. He now works in Singapore, which is much closer (and less lucrative). I, however, unsatisfied with my white-collar job in Washington, voluntarily moved to the developing world, where my income is substantially lower than it was in the West. From a practical perspective, my move to China must strike my relatives as utterly illogical—highly wasteful even—but given that it has finally forced upon me a language in which we can converse, they appeared very supportive of my decision.

In such a way, I am making up for the non-material costs that my life in the world of abundance involved: the cultural schism, the poverty of my extended family disconnect. Growing up, I considered myself apart from my ‘bumpkin’ relatives: I was Australian, and as such noblesse oblige. It was only during college, having developed an understanding of the inter-dependent nature of our lives, that I really began to appreciate our connection. BJ and I exist within different economic spheres and cultures largely because of the random timing of our births—to different brothers, born into different times, as well as the sacrifices they made for my father. But just because our professional lives span divergent paths doesn’t mean that our emotional and social ones must too. After all, we are the Facebook generation.

When the subject of life goals has come up, for years I have grandstanded earnestly on themes of social justice and poverty eradication, on expanding devotion to the wellbeing of my tribe (and thus studying something like engineering, as my brother does, rather than politics) to that of my species and planet. But life in China has helped temper such singular idealism; I now feel a responsibility to perform both.

Coming from a migrant family like my own is not about guilt or burdensome self-accomplishment as it is about recognizing and embracing that privilege. That very uncle who funded my father’s education—and subsequently my own opportunities—has a son, Damon. My father brought him to Australia to live with my family for several years, attending the same high school as me. He is now a CPA in Brunei, and is planning to settle back in Australia. Similarly ambitious is his younger sister, Jenny, who is currently studying literature in China. She is 21, beautiful, and dazzlingly bright—the jewel of our family. Over dinner the other night, she shared with me her aspirations to be a professor and a novelist. I plan to support her in whatever ways I can from Beijing (she lives in Sichuan), and in so doing, continue this legacy of providing mutual support, as well as simply develop our own friendship.

This trip home to celebrate the New Year also involved the sensory thrills of diving off Mamutik island and climbing Mount Kinabalu. But when it comes to the true value of the holiday, my time spent together with BJ, Damon, Jenny and our other cousins revealed even deeper depths and greater heights of understanding.

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